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Headhunted

Headhunted

How do executive recruiters operate? What makes them look kindly on a prospective candidate? What should you do if that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes knocking? CIOs will look to this fictional short story and find outIf the approach had come on any other day, Chris Candidate would have given it his usual short shrift.

Candidate normally viewed his career with a rising satisfaction bordering on smugness. His job showcased his considerable talents, his colleagues accorded him respect, his salary package had never been better, the views from his new office were fabulous and his voice was being well and truly heard as a member of the executive team.

But a new CFO - the CFO from hell - had of late taken considerable gloss off his contentment. Ben Scrooge and Candidate had grated on each other's nerves from the start. In fact, Scrooge seemed to have been operating a kind of undeclared guerrilla war from the day he first showed his pudgy face on the executive floor. During one fraught encounter in an otherwise un-occupied lift, he'd practically told Candidate he'd scheme to undermine his influence with CEO Jim Baker, a man Candidate had worked with on and off as colleague and friend for almost 15 years, at every opportunity. Or, at least, so Candidate had convinced himself in his darker moments.

Worse, the balding 50-year-old with his nervous tic and rabbit breath had an old-school bean counter's scepticism about IT as a competitive weapon. In addition, his terrier-like objection to every penny Candidate spent seemed to go hand in hand with trying to put the knockers on every initiative Candidate put up. Baker, to Candidate's rising horror, seemed to be buying it. The final straw had come this morning, when the CEO had locked himself away with Scrooge to pore over Candidate's proposed budget. Neither man had thought to invite Candidate to the party.

So when his executive assistant Peta told him Alan Mark from Hamilton James Bruce was on the line, Candidate uncharacteristically took the call. He listened carefully as Mark explained how Candidate was of considerable interest to them for a "highly desirable" CIO position that had just opened up in a competitor to Grommet, Parker & Hinds, and that Mark would love to talk to him about the role.

Resentment churning about the unseemly meeting under way down the corridor, Candidate resisted his reflex "thanks but no thanks" response. Instead, he waved Peta out the door, closed it carefully behind her and sat down again while he listened to a few more details. "I could be interested in discussing the position," he found himself saying. "But not here. Certainly not now. In fact, I'd like to sort out something before we agree to a meeting. Is that alright?"

As soon as Mark got off the phone, Candidate put in a call to Jon Henry, an old mate. "Hey buddy, what are you up to?" Henry drawled. Candidate and Henry went back decades, to a time when both used to contend for the same girl in graduate class. After a score of years when their careers had marched almost in parallel, Henry had left the battlefront of the IT arena for the safer fields of executive recruitment. Candidate told him about the approach from Hamilton James Bruce.

"Jeez, mate, I thought you were wedded to Baker. If I'd known you wanted a change, I'd have poached you myself. Listen - and I mean this most sincerely - if you want a new job, stuff Alan Mark, I'll find you a new posting in a minute."

Candidate laughed and arranged to meet him for lunch.

They met in a small Italian restaurant far from their usual patch. Candidate chose the place at random because, with his career prospects out in the marketplace, for once he felt uncomfortable about being seen with his recruiter friend. Candidate sipped his mineral water and tried to admire the slightly grubby faux Tuscany decor while he grilled his old mate about how to manage an approach from a recruiter.

"Okay, so if I meet Mark, how do I handle myself? What's he going to be wanting to hear from me?" Candidate asked as the waiter placed a platter of sizzling seafood on the table. "Right," Henry said, "listen carefully. I can't speak for Mark, but I can tell you what I do and the things I'm looking for. First off, how did you respond to the phone call?

"I listened to what he had to say, then told him I'd get back to him. Was that alright?"

Henry nodded, his mouth temporarily crammed with stuffed mushroom. "Not bad. I can't talk for Mark, but the way I play the game, if somebody is too quick to say they're interested I usually take it to mean they're having to move from their job, and I may count that against them. Long experience has taught me that keenness sometimes equates with desperation, which in turn equals substandard."

Candidate nodded thoughtfully, trying desperately not to feel too desperate.

"If somebody says ‘no I'm not really interested but tell me a little more', it means they're not in the market for a job, but it also tells me they're smart. The smart ones always listen and then evaluate any proposition, even if they're not in the market. Then it's up to me to whet their appetite and seduce them into at least having an initial chat so they can find out a bit more, and hopefully evaluate what's on offer against what they're doing now. In short, by playing just a little bit hard to get but wanting to know more, you've done well."

"One for the good guys," Candidate murmured, catching the waiter's eye to order more water and suddenly strangely buoyed by Mark's approach.

Henry also cautioned him against producing a résumé at a first meeting with a recruiter - behaviour apparently taken as another sign of desperation and a trigger for the recruiter to probe a little bit deeper about a possible candidate's motivation and true capabilities.

"It's a bit like a relationship," Henry expanded. "People who get a bit hot too quickly make you sort of think ‘they're a bit too keen - why?'."

"So never do anything that smacks of desperation?," Candidate asked.

"That's right. You don't want to be desperate. Showing some positive enthusiasm is a good thing. Desperation is definitely bad."

Candidate nodded. "What I don't get is why they approached me in the first place. How did they even know my name?"

"Easy. You've got a high profile," Henry said as he buttered his roll. "You'll be on their database, and here's how you'll have got there. By my count you've spoken at three conferences in the last couple of months alone. There was that detailed article about your e-commerce initiatives in CIO magazine last month, and if I remember right, you were quoted in the Financial Review just the other week. If you worked for a company that was a bit leading edge and had done something innovative, you'd also be on the database. These are the things that count, boy.

"When we have a specific position to fill we also develop what we call target sectors. Those may be particular organisations that might have a certain type of individual in them: either they've got the right sort of culture, or they've performed well as organisations in the market, which means we can deduce they've got quality people. If, for various reasons, we want some particular industry sector experience, we naturally look closely at those sectors."

Henry grinned evilly. "Of course, you'd also be on the database if you'd approached them looking for a new posting; but I know that's not the case, because you've slammed the door in my face every time I've even mentioned such a prospect.

"So here's a tip for you: a bit of prominence amongst your peers always sets off the headhunter's antennae and makes you ripe for getting a call."

"Alright," Candidate nodded, satisfied. "How does this game work? If you were this Alan Mark how would you be handling this?' Henry buttered another roll with meticulous care, then crammed most of it into his mouth. Candidate, used to his friend's graceless table manners, waited patiently for his mouth to empty enough to speak.

"What usually happens is that after a briefing meeting with the hiring executive, who gives us a full specification on the position, the assignment, and the organisational structure, we go away and scope the position out. We put together a briefing document or a position description to take back to the client to demonstrate our understanding of their requirements.

"Next, we decide on the methodology we'll use: purely executive search, advertising, or a combination of the two. That often depends on the seniority of the role - very senior people and those who are more highly sought after tend not to respond to advertisements so they need a direct approach. But it also depends how scarce the type of skill is that we're looking for - whether the person might be in an industry that's quite remote or if they have certain specific skills that ordinarily might not be obtainable.

"Then," he said, carefully sweeping up scattered crumbs with the side of his hand before piling them back onto his plate, "we do a mini quantitative research exercise."

Candidate nodded his understanding, careful not to interrupt the flow - or give Henry the opportunity to butter yet another roll.

"You don't need to know too much about the research phase. It just involves looking within our organisation at previous similar assignments that we may have done, and re-looking at the research that we'd used on previous assignments to identify similar types of people. It also means reviewing our database in terms of people that we've come across in recent times who might have the requisite skills mix.

"We also have a list of sources we use to help us identify people. Sources will be people that we know who are in the market - friendly clients who know a lot of people, people that we've dealt with in the past who have colleagues, but also people in industry associations, and even published information and so on."

Candidate nodded again and summoned the waiter to order coffee. Henry, whose gold tie was by now blotched with a rather handsome red scatter pattern, asked for the dessert menu.

"So in the unlikely event I decided I wanted the job, whom would I probably be competing against?," Candidate asked. "Just local people or will they also look abroad?"

"Depends," said Henry. "If the skills aren't readily available here, we'll always look to the US and other places for matches. But depending on the position, we may go there anyway, just to catch all those Aussies working in the US in our net. If we were looking for a CEO or COO for an Australian company that was going to do a NASDAQ listing, then we'd certainly look in the US because we could find a lot of Australians over there with the right cultural background."

Candidate paid the bill while Henry explained that the upshot of the entire process was a "long list". The next step was to cull the long list by doing some reference checking around the marketplace to help identify who had the right background and who didn't. "So you can bet your booties that if Mark's approached you, he's been making discrete enquiries about you for some time. It's a wonder your ears haven't been burning," Henry laughed as they wandered through the lunchtime streets to their respective cars.

A Week Later . . .

When Candidate was barely five years old, his father returned from a long posting overseas with a brand new box of toy soldiers for Candidate to play with. While he gazed at them, lost in wonder at their shiny new coats and gleaming weapons, his father offered to gather up his old soldiers, which were undeniably extremely shabby, and throw them out. Candidate thought about it for a moment, then said "no". His old soldiers had been loyal to him and served him well over several years. He thought of them as friends. Chucking them out would feel like treachery.

He remembered his feelings about those soldiers as he gazed out at the harbour from his office at Grommet, Parker & Hinds. Baker had been a friend and valued colleague for years. At the very least he was likely to be furious if Candidate decided to leave. Could he really walk out the door, when already the thought of leaving Grommet, Parker & Hinds tasted like betrayal? Trouble is, it was a great offer, and his grand foe Scrooge showed no signs of going away.

Agonised, still at this late hour indecisive about whether to go or stay, Candidate ignored his ringing phone while he pondered the advice Mark had given him after he'd finally been offered the job. His two initial meetings with Mark - one over breakfast and another in Mark's office - had gone well, leading to a full and frank exchange of views. He'd furnished Mark with several references, which had obviously checked out; Mark had helped him produce a resume, which was then presented to his putative new boss, Rod Clark; and then he had had several interviews with Clark. He'd also, with considerably less enthusiasm, agreed to take part in a psychological profiling exercise, which presumably he'd passed.

Clark had finally offered him the position yesterday morning, and it was a good one - exciting, challenging and as prestigious as they come. Candidate had promised to give him a firm answer by lunchtime today. Now, with his weekly meeting with Baker due in less than 10 minutes, Candidate was still tormented over his position. Stay or go? With the minutes ticking away the countdown to crunch time, Candidate still had no idea how he'd decide.

Mark had spent considerable time guiding him through the resignation process and talking to him about what was likely to happen when he resigned, warning him about how Baker might react and what he might do in regard to trying to buy him back. Mark had managed to imply that he had been wise to avoid the usual posture of "if you want me, you had better expect to pay". But he'd also warned him against taking the offer back to Baker in a bid to push up his existing salary.

"There's every chance, given all you've told me, that Baker will promise the earth, moon and stars to keep you," Mark had said. "If you value your career, don't even think about accepting. We know of hard research that says that people that accept an offer and then are bought back by their old company are generally on the market again within three to six months."

Candidate must have looked sceptical. "Oh it's true," Mark had said. "And the reason is that when somebody is bought back they lose the trust, to the extent they had trust, that their employer had in them previously. In fact, two things happen. From the candidate's perspective, the things that they didn't like before don't really change."

Candidate thought about Scrooge and nodded despondently.

"And from an employer's point of view, often they think: so and so was going to leave, we'll promote them but there's a 75 per cent chance they'll be back on the market in six months. If you want my advice, you'll make up your mind one way or another and stick to it. If you're going to tell Baker you're leaving, mean it."

Baker was on the phone when Candidate entered his office 10 minutes later. Hand over the receiver, he nodded rather brusquely at Candidate and gestured him to a seat. Candidate stood his ground for a moment, stomach fluttering.

"Jim, before our meeting gets under way, there's something I need to talk to you about."

Baker nodded and resumed his phone call. When he'd finished, he turned to Candidate.

"Okay Chris, I know you've got something to say too, but let me just put something on the record before we get under way. Scrooge is leaving us."

Candidate was astonished. "Really?" he asked. "Why? What's happened?"

Baker was clearly in no mood for further discussion on the matter. His gaze on Candidate was frosty for a moment, before thawing. "He'll be gone by the end of the week. That's all I have to say on the matter. Now, what did you have to tell me?"

Candidate drew a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak, with no clear idea of what he was about to say.

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